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Don't be fooled - we've just seen the last WACA Test

21st December, 2017
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Mitch Starc was back to his best with one of the balls of the century. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)
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21st December, 2017
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It seemed fitting that international cricket should exit the WACA with a comedy of errors. Make no mistake, we’ve just seen its final Test.

On the fifth day of the Ashes Test, after abnormal sky-torrents had saturated Perth since the previous afternoon, the WACA ground staff put on a comedy of errors.

It started early, when the large pitch cover took off in the wind and concussed the head groundsman, Matt Page.

Video of the moment shows Page being utterly wiped out by a mass of wet tarpaulin, while umpire Blocker Wilson had to use all of his Jurassic Park frame to protect the fleeing elfin form of Joseph Edward Root.

The slow-motion recreation is beautiful, like a scene out of Dante’s Peak. The curator was a sufficiently minor character to be culled halfway.

The only true casualty was Blocker’s umbrella, which ended the encounter about as intact as my pre-series opinions on Shaun Marsh.

Later, men aimed leaf-blowers at a soggy patch on the pitch. Anxious umpires hovered, the captains came and went.

Another leaf-blower joined, then another. Short ones and long ones, kneeling in a circle as though at some horticulturalist shrine. Then the big guns showed up, guys with Ghostbusters packs mounted on their backs. Don’t cross the streams.

“How did the pitch get wet?” people would ask. Then it would start raining, and the groundsmen would stare at each other for a while, then run around in a panic. Answers falling from the sky.

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After what seemed like minutes, someone would get the hessian covering down. Then finally the small plastic one.

The large cover would unroll from the truck, then immediately start gusting again. Attendants would grab at its corners and nearly be carried off.

It was like watching a terribly choreographed grade prep dance recital. Normally rain delays are dull affairs, but this was a slapstick delight.

The poor buggers would battle the thing down, peg it out, and then the rain would stop. They would pack up the tarps, get the blowers back out, and then another shower would fall.

Commentators were genuinely offering the excuse that the ground staff had never had to deal with rain before. While Perth has a dry climate, the phenomenon of water falling from the sky is not entirely unknown.

Morning became lunch, became afternoon, and all the while about 11 people wandered around on the pitch, on a good length for the right-hander facing at the River End.

Remember the furore when Shahid Afridi had a little twinkle-toe twirl on the Faisalabad track? Here we had umpires, captains, groundsmen, a physio, the bus driver, and a stand-up comedian.

Finally, the umpires had had enough. Play began. First ball to the newly named Wet End, and Josh Hazlewood landed the ball right in the damp patch, had it rise about six inches off the pitch, and shoot through to bowl Jonny Bairstow.

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Australian bowler Josh Hazlewood

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

The whole show seemed symbolically appropriate given the ground’s broader mismanagement the last couple of decades.

In the 1980s, the WACA was poised to become a blue-chip venue. The light towers were installed, AFL and cricket shared the calendar, and Perth was booming.

Then football went to Subiaco. Re-laying the wicket square killed its pace. Renovating the ground made it too small for AFL, while no one thought to arrange deals with rugby or soccer.

A bigger redevelopment funded by apartment buildings was worth hundreds of millions, but the plans vanished leaving only $8 million in debt.

When ABC Grandstand’s Gerard Whateley interviewed the WACA boss Christina Matthews during the fifth-day delays, he gave her three opportunities to signal any intention of preserving international cricket at the ground.

“That will come down to Cricket Australia’s scheduling,” came one reply. Well, yes. Will you be hungry at midday? That will come down to whether I’ve had any lunch.

To Whateley’s second attempt, Matthews essentially acknowledged that the ground she runs isn’t good enough.

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“At this stage, we’ll be working on what’s best for cricket fans in WA, not what’s best for the ground,” was one line. “We’ve got to be able to say hand on heart that we want the best cricket at the best ground for the fans and the players.”

Read: that the WACA can offer neither of those things.

Of course, there’s been nothing official from Cricket Australia, whose boss James Sutherland was typically guarded during his own session with Whateley on the Test’s second day.

Presumably, he didn’t want to further annoy Western Australian patriots. Dennis Lillee had already refused to attend the match, given his anger at how poorly things had panned out for the ground that defined his career’s brilliance.

“I’m not going because I’ve had enough of the crap that’s gone on in the background to push the WACA into oblivion,” was the typically blunt statement from one of history’s top ten headband wearers.

Others in the west who are (not always unreasonably) annoyed at perceptions of east-coast condescension or neglect may be mollified by the vague lure of future matches at the venue.

The WACA scoreboard

(Photo: Wiki Commons)

But let’s be realistic. Sutherland’s thrown bone went as follows.

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“With two new countries coming into Test cricket, Afghanistan and Ireland, and the new one-day championship where there’s going to be 13 teams, there will from time to time be a fixture that says we play a lower-ranking team that might not draw as big a crowd.”

All true. But let’s be realistic. If the new Perth Stadium is already getting Tests and ODIs against higher-ranking opponents, why would lower-profile games go to the same city?

Even if they did, the national team would have the crowd-pulling clout to use the new ground, and most locals would prefer it. Why endure the discomfort of the outdated venue when you could enjoy the new?

Or to take Whateley’s later summary: “They’ve spent two billion on that stadium, they’re going to use it.”

Lastly, if a seriously low-drawing opponent came to visit, surely CA would take the chance to play in marginal venues like Canberra and Hobart, or on Top End adventures in Darwin or Cairns.

The one suitable genre might be women’s internationals, given that the WACA managers have plans to downsize, and CA is keen on using smaller grounds like Coffs Harbour and North Sydney Oval.

Fast and bouncy pitches are even more important in the women’s game, so a juiced-up WACA may be exactly the venue. The match there in 2013 was one of the best Tests played in the women’s game.

But with the rate that the women’s cricket is expanding, it may not be long before crowds start hitting the 15,000 threshold that would bring the new stadium into play.

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Of course, we can appreciate the WACA for the memories it has left us and the richness it has added to the game’s history. In an ideal world, it would have been renovated properly and stayed with us into the future.

But there’s no use pretending anymore. The relevant people have told us, even without telling us. Their track records have told us. The state government’s spending has told us. All those signs are clearer than actual words.

The show, from thriller to comedy, is over. Test cricket at the WACA began in 1970 with a bang. It ended in 2017 with a wet patch.